Tim Attwell

It’s small comfort to those who lost so much to wildfire this summer that fires are part of the cycle of life in the Cape Floristic Region. We join many others in our heartfelt sympathy with those whose homes were lost or damaged in Pringle Bay and Rooi Els during this summer’s ‘fire season’.

Bergpalmiet, Tetraria thermalis, in recovery

With fire and its aftermath in mind, thirteen members and guests set off on Saturday 18 March, from Fairy Glen, following the steep and rocky Kasteelkop path to the shale band, at an altitude of 200 metres, on the plateau below the Three Sisters peaks.

Breather, Kasteelkop path
The view we were looking at

The aim of the expedition was to see if the endemic and rare Erica pillansii, a feature of the area, had come into bloom, usually colouring that particular mountainside in swathes of red in late March and April. We also hoped to see the pretty red tubular flowers of the fire adapted Erica cerinthoides and whatever else was emerging following the fire that swept the area in January.

Erica pillansii
Erica pillansii

Erica pillansii
is a ‘reseeder’, which means that its prospect of life after fire depends on the seeds it deposits in the soil in good years and on ideal post-fire conditions for their regeneration. Many reseeding Ericas only germinate when the daily temperature stays consistently below 200 C. In other words, occasional summer showers just won’t do. Only the onset of reliable winter rains will. Because it was too soon after the fire for the new generation of Erica pillansii to have appeared, even as seedlings, our chances of seeing them depended entirely on whether or not the January fire had spared older specimens.

Erica cerinthoides
Erica cerinthoides

Erica cerinthoides
is different. This accomplished survivor is arguably the most widely occurring Erica species in Southern Africa, distributed in varying colours and forms from the Western Cape’s Cedarberg to the Limpopo province’s Soutpansberg. The secret of its success is its lignotuber, woody underground rootstock, from which it resprouts after fire, quickly producing clusters of charming flowers. If unburned, E. cerinthoides can grow to a woody, sparsely foliated and almost moribund 1.5 metres. Fire is essential to the health of E. cerinthoides and its production of flowers and seed.

 When the party topped out on the shale band plateau it was time for tea and a rest on the benches at the top of the trail – but there were no benches, just charcoal, and no Erica pillansii, or E. cerinthoides. Plenty of resprouting restios, presumably Elegia mucronata, and a few new flowers of Erica sessiliflora gave a green promise of new life. E. sessiliflora is one of very few serotinous Erica species, retaining its seed in fleshy protuberances on the stem, just below the flower head, releasing them either when the plant reaches an advanced age or is burned.

Erica sessiliflora (Photos from www.plantzafrica.com)
Erica sessiliflora
(Photos from www.plantzafrica.com)
Seed protective fleshy protuberances

Then we noticed the deep pink to purple flowers of Tritoniopsis lata scattered among the charred remains of cone bushes, presumably Leucadendron xanthoconus, and Proteaceae, most likely Protea neriifolia, starlike seed heads burst open by the heat of the fire. The pretty member of the family Iridaceae, Tritoniopsis lata, had taken full advantage of the ash-enriched soil to get their blooms up to attract the attention of scarce pollinators while the competition was still getting its act together.

Tritoniopsis lata
Tritoniopsis lata

Deciding on a longer route home, the party braved the path along the edge of the escarpment, taking in the magnificent view over the Palmiet River. Mat forming resprouters of the Proteaceae family, Protea acaulos and Protea scabra, pollinated by rodents, notably the striped mouse, Rhabdomys pumilio, were showing signs of new life in the ash. The burnt remains of another low growing protea, P. cordata, a feature of this particular stretch of shale band vegetation, were not. P. cordata is a reseeder and it will be many years before this population is re-established. A similar long recovery lies in store for the tall reseeder Protea mundii, a moisture loving protea that does especially well on the shale band. Fortunately it is a fast grower.

The top end of the steep Klipspringer path down from the plateau was the scene of a more recent fire than the one which swept the shale band. There was as yet little sign of recovery, except for the highlight of the day’s discoveries. Dotted all over the scorched mountainside were beautiful red fire lilies, Cyrtanthus ventricosus.

Fire Lily, Cyrtanthus ventricosus

Unlike other members of the Amaryllidaceae family which routinely flower in late summer, Cyrtanthus appears only after fire, taking a mere two weeks to flower, at any time of the year. We will not see them here again, at least not until the next fire, hopefully many years hence. The speed with which it flowers is helped by that other talent of Amaryllidaceae, the ability to send up a strong maroon stem devoid of leaves, a characteristic called ‘hysteranthy’; a matter of ‘flower first, leaf later’.

As it happened, we did see Erica cerinthoides, not where any fire had been, but tucked safely behind a rock in the middle of the path. Go figure.